In theory, putting “possession” in the title of a horror movie should add to its box-office allure. But it probably won’t take long for word to trickle out that “The Possession of Hannah Grace,” after the first five minutes, is not an exorcism movie. Rather, it’s about the corpse of a girl who dies during an exorcism (in New Canaan, Conn.), so technically speaking you could say that it qualifies. But viewers hooked on the spectacle of demonic possession tend to like their satanic tropes served neat. “The Possession of Hannah Grace” serves them sloppy, if not without a certain random soupçon of grisly style.
Just about the entire film is set in a morgue. And though it stars Shay Mitchell, from “Pretty Little Liars,” it has her playing a character with almost no personality: Megan, an ex-cop and (barely) recovering alcoholic who lands a job working the graveyard shift as a morgue intake assistant at Boston Metro Hospital. Most movie morgues look like overbright kitchens in which you can just about smell the formaldehyde. In “The Possession of Hannah Grace,” the hospital interior is all handsomely streaked slate-gray concrete walls, like some architectural cousin to the dance school in the new version of “Suspiria.” It’s the morgue as Ian Schrager hotel.
This may not exactly be a setting to bring out the popcorn munchers, but “The Possession of Hannah Grace” does have one ghoulish hook to it, if you can call it that: The cadavers are extremely realistic-looking, all veiny marbled skin and blackened decomposing limbs. You might say, “Who would want to see that?” And maybe you don’t. But the director, Diederik Van Rooijen, who was born in the Netherlands, is banking on the fact that years of ever more gradually explicit forensic cop shows have inured us to this stuff, and that the savage gross-out realism he offers can now play as graphic macabre cool. The opening credits look like they were taken from a serial killer’s Polaroid scrapbook, and the special effects serve up a smorgasbord of fleshy decay.
Megan gets taught how to photograph the incoming corpses and take their fingerprints, and this allows the film to linger on them with a slightly icky voyeurism, especially when the body of Hannah Grace arrives. She’s got a decomposing arm, and brutal slash marks on her neck and abdomen, along with a banged-up face with one open eye of startlingly bright sapphire. Even dead, she’s practically communing with us. And sure enough, Hannah, who is played by Kirby Johnson, soon comes alive, escaping from her refrigerator vault and moving around the place with herky-jerky spectral energy. Is she a zombie? Not exactly. She’s more of an undead spirit who begins to heal her wounds by killing people.
None of which provides the film with a lot of mystery, though Van Rooijen knows how to stage a suspense scene built around shock cuts of a decomposing demon sprite. He may have taken a touch of inspiration from the Linda Blair spider-walk scene that was cut from “The Exorcist” (and then restored in later versions); Hannah, too, ambles around with bent limbs and a certain grotesque energy. But once you get the hang of “The Possession of Hannah Grace,” you realize that there’s very little there there. The idea, of course, is that even killing Hannah couldn’t drive the devil out. She’s possessed, although she’s lifeless. Sort of like the movie.